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Congress' Power Struggle With Big Tech Will Be On Display At Hearings


How much power does the United States want a few tech companies to have? That is the overriding question - multiple congressional hearings today. In one of those hearings, Ted Cruz will pursue conservative allegations that Google searches are biased. Another hearing questions whether the biggest tech companies are monopolies. And then there's a hearing about Facebook, which is acting a little like a country by starting its own currency. NPR's Aarti Shahani will be listening throughout the day. Hi there, Aarti.


INSKEEP: What is Facebook's reason - stated reason for starting a currency?

SHAHANI: Well, you may have heard Facebook does plan to create its own money called the Libra. And the stated goal is to bank the unbanked. An estimated 1.7 billion people on Earth do not have a bank account. Many of them are Facebook users. So there's an altruistic spin here. Facebook is going to create its own currency to help them, but thereby taking on a key power of nation states, the power to mint money.

INSKEEP: OK. That sounds really great, being innovative and giving people the power of currency. Although, of course, it also gives a certain amount of power to Facebook, which gets to monitor those transactions, monetize those transactions. What happens to some of the different ways that you can make money off of money, if Facebook is doing this?

SHAHANI: Right. Well, it definitely raises a lot of concerns, for example, about, you know, what do you do about money laundering? How will the company and its partners protect privacy? What happens to the interest earned on Libra deposits? This stuff is not clear yet. It's in the works.

And regulators are speaking up. OK, they are striking very different tones here as well. France's finance minister came out saying this can't and it must not happen. Facebook and its partners shouldn't have a sovereign currency. The U.K. minister says his country is willing to engage with Facebook. And U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin made it clear at a briefing yesterday that he is not comfortable with Facebook launching a currency, at least not yet.


STEVEN MNUCHIN: I think they're being very candid with the administration and where they are. I'm not going to publicly speculate how long I think it will take them to get to the point where we're comfortable with it, but they are a long way away.

INSKEEP: So you heard him say they've been very candid with the administration. What is Facebook saying to answer concerns?

SHAHANI: Well, today the company is going to send David Marcus to testify. He - he's heading the creation of the Libra wallet. He used to head PayPal. And his testimony, which he submitted, it's really diplomatic. He's going to say Facebook won't launch Libra until his team has fully addressed regulatory concerns and received appropriate approvals.

That's a real departure from how the most powerful tech companies have been approaching government these last few years. You know, you'll recall Uber, for example, went into cities and opened up shop and hid from regulators who wanted to stop them. Facebook and Google have been criticized for avoiding responsibility in Europe for the hate speech that's gone viral on their platforms. But finance, it's a very regulation-heavy industry. And Facebook is at least talking the talk here.

INSKEEP: And maybe Facebook is also aware that they, along with other big tech companies, are being suspected of becoming monopolies, a subject of yet another hearing.

SHAHANI: That's right. That's right. Today, over in the House Judiciary Committee, they're going to explore anti-trust issues. Members are going to want to drill into how Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple each works, how they each deal with their competitors and collaborators. And here's the thing. These companies have differences. For example, Amazon and Google both sell advertising. But Amazon's ad money is basically a fee to vendors for them to show up in Amazon search pages. Google is not that. But it is in the companies' interest to close rank, to not throw each other under the bus and to make the conversation go away.

INSKEEP: NPR's Aarti Shahani, thanks so much.

SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.